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Vincent Browne: Irish unity doesn't matter – equality and justice are what's important

Having reported on the Troubles, founded a long-running investigative magazine, edited a Sunday paper and helmed radio and TV shows that were essential current-affairs listening and viewing, Vincent Browne is well placed to express views on what's what in Ireland. He shares some of them with Noel McAdam – including why Partition was 'fortuitous'

Journalist and broadcaster Vincent Browne will be in Belfast in March as part of the Imagine! Festival Of Ideas & Politics. Picture by Brian McEvoy / Courtesy of Virgin/TV3
Noel McAdam

ACCORDING to some, Vincent Browne is the broadcaster who asks the questions other journalists are afraid to. So, cheekily trying to provoke him, the way he does others, I ask what questions he is afraid of being asked. But he is well able for me.

“That one,” he replies, curtly.

Browne has the reputation, of course, of having opinions about everything, while appearing willing – given the evidence – to change them.

Most recently, after a year-long absence from our television screens, the veteran media man presented us with a two-part documentary on Gerry Adams.

“Of course he was very much involved in the IRA campaign of atrocity, murder and criminality but from the early 1980s he began to seek a way out of violence and to bring the republican movement with him. Against the odds, he was successful. Without him, the atrocities almost certainly would have happened anyway but without him, peace wouldn’t have happened when it did,” Browne concludes.

So how, in the estimation of the former Magill magazine and Sunday Tribune editor,, does Adams compare to his successor as Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald?

“Adams is in a different league – and this is not intended to be a critique of Mary Lou,” he says. “But Adams is a historic figure, almost irrespective of what you believe his role in and culpability for horror was.”

Browne himself has been a target for the IRA in the past but seems to have come to terms with the threat.

“I was informed in early 1987 that the Official IRA was planning to kill me because of revelations we published in Magill and The Sunday Tribune about them,” he says. “But that is all past. I have met some of the people who, I was informed, had ordered this and one of the people who were to carry it out. But, bygones, etc.”

Now 74, Browne is Belfast-bound again, for the first time in more than a year. There have been “huge changes” in the city, he says, “most for the better”.

As part of the now annual Imagine! Festival of Ideas & Politics, Browne is giving a talk on the theme that the Partition of Ireland was “fortuitous”.

He sets out his case: “Had unionists/Protestants been forced into a united Ireland in 1922, almost certainly there would have been mass slaughter – far, far worse than what happened. Then, if there were still a united Ireland afterwards, there would have been continued strife on a scale far greater than there was.

“Furthermore, unionists were indeed perspicacious in believing Home Rule would mean Rome Rule – that is precisely what happened. Also, probably, the mass poverty that afflicted most people in the south would have made poverty worse in the north.

“Yes, the new Northern Ireland state was riven by sectarianism and discrimination and occasional murderous onslaughts.

“But while I believe this would have happened even in the absence of a continuing threat to the northern state, it would have been less vicious because of less provocation, I think.”

Still trying to get a rise out of a man some view as notoriously prickly, I ask whether he is now closer to historian than journalist, the latter, of course, being said to write the first draft of history. Again, he sees me coming a mile off. “If journalism is the first draft of history, there is no hope for history either,” he quips.

But I am not giving up on needling him, even a little, and ask if there is a difference between the angry young man and the grumpy old man “refusing to go quietly into that good night”, in the Dylan Thomas phrase.

“I have been both,” says Browne.

He keeps well up to date with current affairs and believes the unfolding of Partition has a direct impact on the politics of today.

“It suggests we [in the Republic] should shut up about border polls and a united Ireland. There cannot now be a united Ireland without the agreement to this by the people in both parts of Ireland.

“Even if there were a marginal majority in Northern Ireland in favour of unity, I believe the majority in the south would vote against a united Ireland – only if a clear majority of unionists wanted to join a united Ireland would the south vote for it and even then…

“Anyway a united Ireland doesn’t matter. What matters is the kind of society or societies we have on the island of Ireland. If there is substantive equality and justice in both parts of Ireland, there will be harmony and fairness.”

Born in Limerick, Browne lives in the coastal Dublin suburb of Dun Laoghaire; he is protective of his private life, declining to tell me the names of his wife and two daughters.

The Tonight With Vincent Browne current affairs show, first broadcast on RTÉ radio, then on TV3, covered official inquiries into the police, political corruption and child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, the latter sometimes making for disturbing listening.

Given his reporting and commentary on Garda reform and misconduct, what advice would he give former senior PSNI officer turned Garda Commissioner Drew Harris?

“The problems in the Garda are worse than has been appreciated and date back many decades,” he responds.

Does he believe the inquiries process was instrumental in changing Irish society?

“I think the inquiries into clerical child abuse did maybe fatal damage to the Catholic Church in Ireland or rather in southern Ireland. The Catholic Church is stronger in the north, I think, because of the ‘identity’ factor.”

Browne, a qualified barrister, is also famous for having had his phone bugged by the state in the 1970s and 80s and I ask him whether, with hindsight, more should have been made of this at the time. In a settlement almost 15 years after the bugging, in 1997 the government admitted it had intercepted his phone for reasons of state security but accepted that Browne himself had never been involved in subversion or crime.

“Initially, I think it was tapped because I was in contact with members of the IRA, notably [the late IRA leader] Dave O’Connell. But that contact ended immediately before the tap began!

“O’Connell had been claiming that in 1975 the British were about to make a declaration of intent to withdraw from Ireland; I wrote that this was a fantasy. As it turns out, O’Connell was right and I was wrong – Harold Wilson did consider this in 1975.

“O’Connell was incensed by what I wrote about this at the time and refused to talk to me for years, by which time he was no longer in the IRA or certainly not in a leadership position.” He continues: “So the phone was tapped, certainly for several years, to find out what I was up to journalistically. It suggests that many, many other phones of journalists and others were tapped.”

All political conversations at the moment drift towards Brexit so I put to Browne whether the UK’s still uncertain departure from the EU opens the opportunity for discussions on some sort of new Ireland and is that even becoming an inevitability?

He replies: “The new Ireland stuff has become a trigger for blather and almost never does it address the deep inequalities in both societies.”

Coming full circle, I ask if he can see Sinn Féin in government in the south after the next election – and what’s his view of that prospect?

“Probably not after the next election but, probably, within 10 years. But it will make no difference at all.

“Sinn Fein has joined the southern establishment or at least has applied for membership asap; and nothing sacred to the southern establishment will be endangered in any way. Certainly, no significant shift towards equality.”

:: Vincent Browne will speak on The Fortuitous Partition of Ireland at the Crescent Arts Centre Cube Theatre, Belfast, on March 27, 7.30pm-9pm (doors 7pm). For tickets and more information about the Imagine! Festival Of Ideas & Politics 2019 see imaginebelfast.com

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